Jorge Otalecu, 23, stretches out his hand to help fellow crew member, Álvaro Ramos, aboard the Aldebaran. The two sportsmen from Marbella, Spain, are hoping to make history this August as part of a special crew of mixed disabilities competing in the prestigious Copa del Rey de Vela international sailing race. ‘It is an opportunity to open doors as they will compete on equal terms with the rest of the racing field,’ says Jorge’s father, Alex Otalecu.
Everyday tasks might be a struggle for Jorge but when it comes to swimming, surfing, sailing, skiing, cycling he is unstoppable, beams his mother, Maite Caño (pictured above with Jorge’s father, when Jorge was preparing for the Copa del Rey). Jorge has an intellectual disability (ID), the most common, and most often overlooked, developmental disability. The term is used when a person has limitations in cognitive functioning and such life skills as communication, social relations and self-care.
CADI: Marbella’s community initiative is transforming lives through the power of sport.
Jorge also has ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). ‘He had so much energy and we needed to find how best to channel it,’ explains Maite. The family’s challenge was to ‘look at what he could do rather than what he couldn’t do’. Sport was where he found joy, but there was nowhere that he and other children with special needs could develop their skills.
Jorge’s parents are members of CADI – a community-driven association of families whose children have ‘functional diversity’ or special needs. The association works tirelessly to raise awareness of the power of Adaptive Sports. Making sport accessible to anyone with special needs takes ‘a lot of work and a lot of heart’, says Maite. ‘Some people can and they won’t; some people want but they can’t – but we can and we want.’
In 2013, Jorge’s parents approached their local swimming club in Marbella to ask for a section for swimmers with special needs. It started with just one member, Jorge! Today it has over 20.
‘At first I thought I was just giving Jorge the opportunity to practise,’ says local swimming instructor Alberto Alvares. ‘But very quickly I realised that he and his friends were talented swimmers and could go further.’ The swimming team trains at weekends and competes in local and national competitions. ‘Swimming helps them to control their emotions, to improve their self-esteem and to integrate as part of a group.’
It’s not only at water sports that Jorge excels. His father, who is an Alpine ski instructor, taught him to ski from a young age and in 2017 he won bronze in the Nordic skiing event at the Special Olympics in Austria. He represented Spain in the INAS World Ski Championships in France earlier this year and plans to compete in the Special Olympics 2021 in New Zealand. Jorge and his parents have met Tim Shriver, Chairman of Special Olympics International, and work as sports ambassadors championing social inclusion.
Jorge is currently studying Cultural Environments at Malaga University. Maite explains that this special course is an example of inclusive post-secondary education, designed to encourage young people with intellectual or developmental disabilities into higher education and future work. At the recent World Economic Forum it was stated that people with disabilities ‘have much to offer society and indeed the economy, yet remain the most marginalised group of people in the world’.
Recently, Jorge and other swimmers from the Marbella Swim Club have been visiting local schools to share their personal stories. ‘They are living proof of how to overcome barriers,’ says Maite. ‘They teach the lessons that are so important today; empathy, resilience, grit and character.’
On the sand dunes, every Saturday morning, you will find CADI families, looking out to sea, watching their children laughing, squealing with joy and surfing. Alex and Maite are there too, watching as Jorge helps young surfers ride the waves.
One of them is Nikko, the son of CADI’s President, Karina Milici. He has cerebral palsy. Before he began surfing, he could barely move his neck. ‘The transformation is astonishing,’ says Karina. ‘He is now able to stand, surf (with assistance) and move around more freely. And emotionally too – he is happy. Nikko taught me so much: there are no limits to doing something you love.’
‘I hear them say “I want to be as strong as Jorge” and it brings tears to my eyes,’ says Maite. She admits that she used to be over-protective and apprehensive about how he would cope outside the family bubble. But he has thrived. The children look up to him and are inspired by all he has accomplished. They want to be just like him.
Photos: Yee Liu Williams and courtesy of Maite Caño and CADI